It doesn't happen very often that Hollywood dishes out two R-rated comedies on the same weekend, but such is the case with this weekend's return of Entourage and Melissa McCarthy's reuniting with Paul Feig, whose Bridesmaids made McCarthy an Oscar nominee and a household name.
Since Bridesmaids made her a bona fide star, and to be fair McCarthy was fully a year into her regular role on Mike & Molly when Bridesmaids came around, we've seen director after director seemingly baffled by how best to showcase McCarthy's energized, inspired and fearless brand of intelligent yet recklessly abandoned comedy.
A few years before she appeared in Mike & Molly and Bridesmaids, McCarthy was building her film career with bit parts in a variety of known and unknown films including one of this critic's favorite dark comedies, Pumpkin, an incredibly dark yet vividly realistic and very funny film about a cheerleader, played by Christina Ricci, who falls in love with a disabled guy (Hank Harris). Pumpkin was one of those films that played the arthouse scene briefly, embraced by a dark and demented few and abhorred by those who thought its views on disability were absurd and offensive.
Here's the thing. They were absurd and offensive. They were also accurate. Painfully accurate.
By the end of Pumpkin, you got the truth of this guy and figured out that who he was far transcended any perceived disability.
Why has it been so hard for filmmakers to figure out that Melissa McCarthy is not a fat actress or fat comedienne.
Melissa McCarthy is an actress. Melissa McCarthy is a comedienne. Melissa McCarthy is, quite simply, one of the most inspired and fresh and talented comic actresses working these days and yet, far too often, it seems like filmmakers have either felt compelled to either make McCarthy prove herself with demeaning and unnecessary physical humor or to adversely make her physical boldness some histrionic social statement that never quite fits.
Feig, on the other hand, ain't having any of it.
What a breath of fresh air.
This is the Melissa McCarthy that America loves. She's bold and brave and risk-taking and funny and sweet and sensitive and intelligent and so much more. Is she fat?
Who the fuck cares?
With Spy, writer/director Paul Feig has crafted for McCarthy a character who says everything that needs to be said about body image, empowerment of women, and institutional sexism but it does so without compromising McCarthy. With his first screenplay in 12 years, Feig is showing the world exactly what he saw when he cast McCarthy in Bridesmaids and it has everything to do with the actress's gifts for physical comedy, her intelligence, her wit, and her absolute willingness to make herself vulnerable if it'll end up with the audience laughing.
Amidst Spy's many laugh out loud moments, Feig and McCarthy have created a film that doesn't shy away from the institutional sexism and societal stereotypes that work against women in life, love, the workplace and everywhere else. Susan is surrounded by people who have no clue whatsoever who she is, other than the fact that she's the one who remembers their birthdays, supports them, helps them, guides them and never expects anything in return.
If this all sounds heavy, it's not. That's what makes it incredibly close to brilliant and certainly one of the best uses of Melissa McCarthy's talent to date.
The film kicks off with McCarthy's Susan sitting in front of a computer screen in her rodent-infested CIA war room where she's guiding Law's Fine through their latest caper while she also plays the role of mom/friend/cheerleader in the office. It is clear that Susan harbors a crush on Fine that she's well aware is not returned, yet it is amazing to watch McCarthy bring both the humor and the hurt to a scene where Fine's idea of thanking her for her support is to give her a piece of jewelry that is best described as offensive under the best of circumstances while also pronouncing "It's you!"
Um, no. It's not. Unfortunately, Fine isn't alone in seeing Susan through an incredibly narrow lens.
There's Rick Ford, played to near perfection by a hilarious Jason Statham, a brash and self-promoting agent who spends much of the film dissing Susan while pointing out all of the ways that he's vastly superior including that time he defibrillated himself and number of other increasingly ludicrous endeavors. McCarthy and Statham are, in fact, hilarious together with a fun little spark that serves as a reminder that McCarthy also has that rare gift for meeting her cast mates where they're at.
When Fine is killed while trying to take out a Bulgarian baddie named Rayna, played by Rose Byrne, trying to sell a nuke, Susan starts to come out of her shell in an effort to exact revenge and is authorized to work the case by a boss (Allison Janney) who seems to serve as Susan's reality check whenever she dips into her occasionally raging insecurities.
Had Feig allowed Spy to simply spiral (get it?) into a comedic revenge flick, there's a pretty good chance it would have also spiraled into yet another film to spend more time laughing at McCarthy rather than laughing with her. Fortunately, Spy is so much more.
What makes Spy such an extraordinary film is that Feig allows us to see Susan's life without doing so at the expense of Melissa McCarthy. In many ways, Susan is the same type of character that she always plays - an ordinary woman who has no idea she's truly extraordinary. Oh sure, we see her go through her own set of humiliations whether dealing with her more glamorous and recognized colleague Karen (Homeland's Morena Baccarin) or being fitted for her European escapades with costumes best described as somewhere between frumpy and Pentecostal preacher's wife.
We get to watch McCarthy's Susan deal with it all in a way that feels authentic, a sort of quiet resignation that seems to realize even after all is said and done that the greatest successes in the world aren't likely to change the dynamics in her life.
McCarthy is exceptional here, both brilliantly funny and quietly insightful. She serves up her usual inspired physical comedy, yet there's a difference in the way she carries herself and that difference radiates throughout the entire film. It's a joy to watch.
Speaking of inspired, Statham hasn't served up a performance like this since his turn in Crank 2: High Voltage and it's a welcome return to something other than a one-note performance from a guy who has far more of a gift for comedy than Hollywood gives him the credit for acting. Hopefully, Spy will change that for good.
Rose Byrne turns in a far greater performance than one would ever expect as Rayna, a baddie who is sometimes rather bad at being a baddie. She and Byrne are so fresh and alive tossing insults back and forth that you can't help wonder what was on the written page and what just spewed forth. Jude Law is perfectly cast as that guy we all know who possesses a sort of sneering sincerity that screams of such a sarcastic sentimentality that it's hard to know whether to take it seriously or not. British actress Miranda Hart, in what could have easily been the thankless role of best friend Nancy, instead serves up a performance that is hilariously wonderful even when she's stuck with the film's most awkward scenes involving rapper Fifty Cent. Or is it 50 Cent? Or can I just call him Curtis Jackson?
Whatever. It doesn't work anyway.
Even when her projects haven't necessarily garnered critical acclaim, there's something absolutely irresistible about Melissa McCarthy. It's a beautiful thing to behold when she gifts us with a film worthy of her talent. Spy is such a film. With ample doses of humor and heart along with a character that lives up to McCarthy's intelligence and talent, Spy is the first great comedy of Summer 2015.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic